Track Masters Newbie Eddy Lewis blogs his experiences at the recent World Track Masters Championships in Manchester.
Above: Eddie Lewis after his Masters experience, pictured with his begged, borrowed, but thankfully not stolen, kit.
To set the scene: I am 40years old, I ride under a 2nd cat racing licence, I usually ride the outdoor track at Herne Hill a maximum of 3 times a year, I had never ridden an indoor track, I had never ridden a pursuit race. Fast forward to 2 weeks before the championship.
I was on the coast at Seaford, Sussex for a week, two weeks before the championship. I was attending a course; one that precluded any physical exercise. I had called the course organisers, who had relented slightly under a misunderstanding that I was to be riding in the Olympics (Honestly not my fault!) and allowed me two 1 hour breaks during the week to train. I had my club hill climb championship at the weekend after the course so I reasoned that I would split my training into some draggy hill efforts and some sprints on the side streets of Seaford.
Cyclists usually taper their training down during the week before a big event. I thought I'd better keep riding as I'd done precious little in the last few weeks.
Beyond the issues with my training I was also aware that I had a problem with the bike I was to ride at the championship.....I didn't have one! I do own a track bike......but it's 15 years old, it has 32 spoke wheels and "Will race for beer!" stickers on its forks. Not the sort of machine welcomed at a world championship meeting. I had made a few enquiries and put out some requests on bike forums and had had little luck. Then the first of my breaks came. Rob aka 'Hoops' contacted me from a forum to say I could borrow his bike (minus wheels) as he had recently crashed on it. He'd broken his wrist in the process and so couldn't ride it anyway.
Rob's Planet-X carbon Stealth was more like what I need for the championship, regardless of the stickers adorning it. It had sleek lines and did indeed look a little stealth in lacquered raw carbon. I test rode it on the Herne Hill velodrome with my old wheels and it felt just fine, to be honest the test ride was as much for me as the bike as I hadn't ridden the track in months!
Shortly afterwards a guy called Phil I'd met at local races offered his rear disc for loan. I'd previously lent Phil a wheel at a criterium race when he'd punctured and I guess Phil and karma were repaying me! He didn't actually have the wheel himself as he'd lent it to friend....who was in Devon.....but who had a flatmate......who would wait in as I drove from the track to Vauxhall to collect it. Who said this was going to be easy? Well no-one I guess!
The person that had convinced me to ride at the championship flew in from Australia to acclimatise and finalise his training before the meeting and we arranged to meet for a ride. I'd met Dave Stevens the year before when a friend had introduced him as 'A bike mad Aussie businessman'. I hadn't realised he was the masters world champion for the pursuit and points races and current holder of the pursuit world record for his age group.....the same age group as me! I took Dave out for a nice ride into the countryside, at 5 hours it was disastrously long for 2 guys who would be competing in races of between 3 and 20km at the end of the week but Dave took it in his stride with his usually affable manner.
Dave advised me to get to Manchester early to settle in and to ride a gear around 100 inches for the races. 100! I'd been racing on 86 inches for years, 90 was considered big, 100 was suicide! Besides, I'd need a 13 tooth sprocket to make anything like that from the 48 & 49 tooth chain rings Rob had lent me. Well I eventually tracked down a 13 sprocket but the next problem was that because it was so small the chain rubbed on the lock-ring that held it on. Close to despair I trudged off to find an offset lock-ring that would work. I got one.......but it didn't work......so I stuffed a spacer in between sprocket and lock-ring and that seemed to do the trick. I cleaned and de-stickered the P-X, then applied some stickers of my own saying 'Eddy' to the seat-tube, just to make me feel a little more at home. For a front wheel I used my own deep section TT wheel, I just switched the QR to an Allen-key fix to meet regulations. I applied some new tape to the steel handlebars as the old stuff was ripped from the crash. The bike was ready........and even if I did say so myself it looked great.
The first race I'd entered was the 40-44year old 3000m pursuit. Timetabled for 11am, it meant I'd need to be in Manchester for 9am, that meant leaving home at 4am! So much for arriving early and rested as I'd promised Dave. Obviously I got stuck in the rush-hour traffic in Manchester but luckily I managed to get to the velodrome in time for a 15 minute practice on the track. All velodromes are different, some more so than others. My local, Herne Hill, is 450m of open-air tarmac and is the chalk to Manchester's 250m indoor, wood-planked cheese. I'd never ridden indoors or a track as short as Manchester. (The short track means steep banks... over 42 degrees!) So a practice ride was essential, if only to settle my nerves!
On the face of it the pursuit looks like a simple race. Two riders start at opposite sides of the track, when the gun goes they both race anti-clockwise over the prescribed distance. For this event there was to be qualifying followed by the fastest 4 riders riding again in a final for the medals. As with many things in life a wealth of subtle complexity can lay hidden below a veneer of simplicity. I had changed the handlebars on the bike for TT bars as is the norm for the pursuit but had failed to realise that being a UCI (Cycling's international governing body) event my bike would have to undergo rigorous scrutinising from the events technicians before it could be passed to ride. I flushed with panic as I approached the technicians who were armed with a special jig to aid the application of the UCI's bike set-up rules. Rules that I didn't even know the content of, let alone whether the bike I'd built up last week would pass. Fortunately the bike passed. My next problem wasn't far away though.
The pursuit riders are started from a special gate that holds their bikes. The gate is a metal frame housing a compressed air canister that is used to operate a hydraulic brake that holds the rear wheel of the bicycle in place until the gun goes. I'd never used one before. The track is littered with tales of riders failing to leave the gate cleanly and falling straight over on their side, I wasn't keen to add myself to the list. Dave had offered his advice, 'Go on the the zero, not the 1 of the countdown beeps'.
Time whirled by and I found myself sitting on the bike, in the start gate, with the beeps of the countdown sounding alarm in my ears. I had gone through so much to get there and now it all felt surreal. It was bright in the velodromes lights, a small crowd watched the moment play out. My head felt stuffed. Stuffed with the details of preparation, stuffed the details of the race, stuffed with worries, concerns and stabs of panic. I was in slow motion, the crowd saw me sit for an extra minute or 2 as a rider from the previous race had fallen at the end of his race, it felt like hours to me. Then the beeps dragged me back to the moment 5,4,3........Jesus.......2,1, long beep for zero. It was just a reflex. I hit the gas on the zero and exited the gate cleanly......then it happened...
Time sped up. I was catapulted forward into a tunnel of light, wind and pain. With each turn I could feel the pressure on my arms as the g-force drove me into the steep banking of the tracks curves. It was eerily quiet, I mostly heard the whistle as the air flowed over and around my aero helmet, there were the odd shouts but I couldn't decipher their meanings. I felt like I was falling around the track in a neat ovals, just slightly out of control. The laps counted down from 12 and as I got down to 4 to go (1km left) the pain was really starting to bite. I'd started a little hard, it was hard to know as I was riding as a complete amateur on subjective feeling instead of a pre-selected schedule as a seasoned rider would, and now I was paying. My head boiled and my legs were solidifying as the effort filled them with lactic acid. My heart was pounding at 180bpm and peaked at 185bpm as I crossed the line and the finishing gun went off.
I'd been shot. I knew I must have been because I knew I wasn't really there. I was just floating back into the room. Slowly the wheels turned slower and instinct turned me back to my bike stand and kit, my heart slowed and I drifted back into myself. I'd finished my first pursuit. What a ride! I wasn't really concerned about the time, I knew how it felt to ride a pursuit and it felt beautiful. I finished in 3:49:963 an average speed of 46.964 km/h. I had trashed my throat and coffed for the next day but I was happy. I could now sit back and watch Dave try and retain his title.
Dave is a champion for 3 good reasons: 1) He has a champion's kit. Him and the bike have been in the wind tunnel. He rides an aero machine in the most aero position he can whilst wearing an aero skinsuit and uses front and rear disc wheels with specialist tires pumped to 200 psi. 2) He is a talented rider who trains very hard and pays attention to ALL the details. 3) He thinks like a champion and is willing to take the pain and risks to be a champion. And so it was. I watched Dave tear around the track in 3:24:951 (52.696 km/h) to retain his title and break his own age related record. The difference was that of a chancer versus a perfectionist and of a cart horse versus a thoroughbred. It was a pleasure to watch a human do something so well.
After all that first day excitement I had a day off as my next race was the scratch race for Friday. I had time to watch the other riders from all over the world compete in their own races and private battles. Lunch times the Masters took a break and the GB track team came on for their training sessions. I saw Sir Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton etc doing their bit.......they were even better than Dave!
I qualified for the scratch race in the morning with a marginally smaller gear (48x13) than the gear I used for the pursuit (49x13) It was a 5km bun-fight as only 12 of 24 progress from each of the 2 heats to the final. It was quite simply brutally hard and fast. Dave qualified too, he stated that the final we would ride that evening would be harder and faster......he wasn't wrong. I wrung every ounce of effort from my body just to stay in the race, eventually finishing 15th of the 24 finalists. A huge American called Joseph Wentzell actually lapped the field without me noticing as I was in my own little world. Dave took the bronze.
Saturday, final day of the competition. 10km points qualifier to start (40laps) followed by the 20km points final (80laps) and then a special 10mile (64 lap) scratch cup race to finish. All week long I had been looked after and supported by the band of Aussies that Dave was encamped with in the stadium. They were a good mix of sprinters and endurance riders and seemed to have amassed an incredible haul of medals but maintained humour and humility whilst they did it. From the group, Rick, Dave and myself qualified for the final. Rick and I knew we were probably in for a kicking so we hatched a plan to help Dave retain his title, quite simply help Dave when we were able.
I wasn't to be be disappointed by the pace of the points final, it was ridiculous. Two riders failed to start but the remaining 22 were certainly up for a fight! It was quite amazing how quickly the laps ticked by. Dave had won the first sprint and got points in the 3rd, 5th and 6th but failed in the 2nd and 4th, it was neck and neck for the title with 2 other riders. Rick had blocked for Dave and generally disrupted the flow when he could, I'd just hung on and missed out on points a couple of times. Then we headed towards the 7th sprint at lap 68 and I had managed to wriggle to the front. I took a quick glimpse behind to check where Dave was, right on my wheel, perfect! That was my moment to help Dave, I hit the gas as hard as I could, stringing the bunch out to a thin line for just over a lap. I was utterly wasted and swung up the bank to let Dave drive to the line. He got 3 points. I just managed to grab the tail of the race as I swung back down the bank. It was all down to the last sprint, Dave was tied with another rider on 14 points and they had a third rider just 2 points behind on 12 points. I couldn't recover quickly enough to lead Dave out again. I managed to finish 17th of the original 22 starters, 3 riders DNF. I was however close enough to see Dave battle through the best of the rest to take the final sprint and the gold medal. I felt, in a way, I'd won too.
I finished my championship with an annoying 4th place in the final cup race. I'd held good position throughout the race and not been caught doing too much work on the front. As the race whirled to a close I found myself on the front with 2 laps to go. I swung up in fear of leading out the bunch only to get swamped and then struggled to get back on a wheel as the bunch sprinted to the line. It was a road-rider's instinct to get off the front but the more experienced riders in the Aussie camp said I should have toughed it out on the front....and I knew they were right. Like I said annoying.
Overall the whole experience was one of the best in my life. I made new friends, learned new skills and stretched myself to the limit of performance and personal development. I hear that a deal has been done that will keep the Masters Championship in Manchester for another 2 years......... I will be back!